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Scientists Visit Policymakers, Offer Help Tackling Climate Change





Left: Researcher Jonathan Nichols, center, and colleagues take measurements from a New York-area marsh to test for the presence of pollutants. | John Crusius/USGS. Right: Scientist Sarah Truebe tests stalagmites to gauge ancient rainfall levels. | Jansen Cardy.

Aaron Kennedy, an assistant atmospheric sciences professor, recently encountered an atmosphere unlike anything he normally finds in his field work on the prevalence of extreme weather patterns around the world: the halls of Congress.

On his way to the first of six meetings on Capitol Hill as part of his inaugural participation in Climate Science Day events that bring scientists to Congress each year to offer lawmakers and their staff assistance and scientific resources relating to climate science, Kennedy ran into a crowd waiting to watch Day Two of federal Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Next, Kennedy was momentarily kept from heading back to the Capitol by a motorcade carrying President Donald Trump.

“Just the level of craziness on the Hill was what impressed me,” he said of his meetings with North Dakota and Indiana lawmakers. “There were Future Farmers of America everywhere for National Agriculture Day, along with H-2B visa supporters. Just about every office was packed with groups such as school kids from rural North Dakota and other interest and scientific groups.”



Atmospheric scientist Aaron Kennedy meets with lawmakers as part of Climate Science Day initiative to offer lawmakers scientific resources. | Julia Marsh/ESA

Kennedy was among 27 scientists who visited congressional offices on March 21 to offer scientific expertise on everything from meteorology to agriculture as part of the Climate Science Day outreach initiative sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and 13 other scientific societies and organizations. The group also participated in a full-day training session where they were walked through what to expect, how to approach the meetings and received a much applauded insider’s view of Congress from two lawmakers – Illinois Democrat Rep. Bill Foster, the only physicist in Congress, and former South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis.

The meetings confirmed Kennedy’s view that word choice is very important in communicating scientific topics, particularly so when it comes to climate science – something, he said, he has encountered in his work as a meteorologist for North Dakota farmers. “Varying weather patterns” works much better in discussing climate shifts than “climate change” he said.

Beyond honing communications skills, participants said while the discussions often started off with broad trends in climate science, invariably the exchanges shifted to specific local issues such as wildfires, ozone levels, crop rotations, sea level rise, droughts and air quality.

The group said they called attention to the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which was founded last year to promote a nonpartisan approach to addressing climate change and urged offices to get involved. They also pointed to a resolution introduced by New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik that calls on lawmakers to summon the nation’s “ingenuity, innovation and exceptionalism” and commit to finding “economically viable” ways to address the risks of climate change. 

Sarah Truebe, director of community engaged learning in environmental sustainability at Stanford, met with House and Senate staff from the Arizona and Colorado congressional delegations and praised the experience, saying the meetings eliminated all her initial trepidation and left her “pleasantly surprised.”

“A lot of scientists think that members of Congress don’t want to talk about climate science, but the members we met with, across the board actually, were enthusiastic and interested in what we wanted to talk about,” Truebe said.

In addition, Truebe said, congressional staff showed interest in establishing the areas of each participant’s academic and scientific training and posed questions that gave each scientist a chance to speak to topics that related to their specialties.

“This really increased my sense of self-efficacy about contacting my representatives and senators,” Truebe said. “This is not as hard or scary as it sounds. You just go in there and talk about what you care about and, in my case, say ’I am a constituent in Arizona and I am a climate scientist and I am happy to be a resource and or be helpful to you and connect you to other resources.’”

In a meeting, for instance, with the staff of Arizona Republican Rep. Tom O’Halleran, Truebe said her reference to a monthly, regionally focused climate report drew immediate interest. The report, produced by the Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) program, tracks current reservoir levels, El Niño trends, monsoon predictions and offers three-month outlooks on temperature and precipitation levels to help local officials better prepare for needed responses.



Sarah Myhre encounters a robot at the 2016 American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting | Sarah Myhre

She has since passed along the CLIMAS report, which is produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program. “That will keep the dialogue open,” Truebe added.

Sarah Myhre, a Ph.D climate scientist, who met with six Washington state lawmakers and their staff, said she engaged in a discussion about snowpack levels in the Cascades, which were so low in 2015 that many ski resorts were unable to operate, a development with significant impact on the local economies.

“We all want to eat salmon and ski with our kids in the future and those shared values are ways we can communicate both as a constituent and as an individual,” said Myhre, a Washington state native.

Myhre said climate science discussions are best focused on economic impact and human health consequences. “Engagement humanizes science and reinforces the value of science in our public policy,” said Myhre, who recently testified before the Washington State House Environmental Committee on the importance of science informed targets for greenhouse gases.

Zack Valdez, left, testing agricultural management practices related to harvest rates for switchgrass, a sustainable biofuel. | Zack Valdez

Zack Valdez, who is wrapping up his Ph.D in agricultural biofuels at Baylor University in San Antonio, Texas, visited eight Texas and Alabama congressional offices, including those of both Texas senators and newly appointed Alabama Sen. Luther Strange. He and his group shared the science behind regulations designed to keep air, water and soil resources clean, he said.

“It was very empowering, not just between the scientists but also between the staff that we got to meet with,” Valdez said.

Jonathan Nichols, a Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Research Professor at Columbia University who specializes in climate science, focuses his research on whether warming temperatures will cause Arctic peat bogs to decay or expand due to improved growing conditions, a question that could alter the levels of carbon the bogs have long absorbed.

Yet, as was the case with the other scientists, during his meetings with the staff of New York delegation members the conversations turned to his work measuring the impact of human activities on New York’s coastal marshes. “Coastal marshes are really important for storm protection and for keeping waterways clean,” he said. “There are lots of human benefits that coastal marshes provide for us so we want to understand how our activities are damaging marshes and what we can do to help them.”

Overall, he said, the sessions were certainly “a worthwhile experience” and looks forward to the staff he met taking him up on invitations to visit the marsh field sites he is studying to see firsthand what is happening.   

“This is an effective way [to communicate], just show up and tell them about it,” Nichols said. “In an ideal world, the people who make our laws would be experts on every topic they are making laws about. Obviously, that is not possible. So, if somebody, who is an expert … makes himself available to provide information that is relevant to those decisions then that is very helpful.”

[Associated image: credit:Jansen Cardy]